Sunday 25 February 2018

Richard Curran: Corporation tax saga just won’t go away

Boss man: Enda Kenny . Photo: Collins
Boss man: Enda Kenny . Photo: Collins

The issue of Ireland’s Corporation Tax regime just won’t go away.

It isn’t unique to Ireland, and there is a level of disquiet about the tax regimes across a number of other countries.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has entered the debate by repeating the transparency of Ireland’s corporate tax code on several occasions. Some politicians in places like the US are annoyed that giant American corporations can seem to avoid paying their fair share of tax at home. 

Companies can use Irish registered subsidiaries to reduce the amount of tax paid anywhere. In its defense, Ireland can argue that the ability to do that is based on international tax agreements and structures and can be used across many jurisdictions.

It requires major international co-operation to resolve this issue. Agreements would have to be signed by many jurisdictions if this were to change dramatically.

However, there is another corporate tax issue in Ireland. That is, how much money US multinationals are paying in Ireland. That is a slightly different issue to using Ireland as a means of avoiding paying corporate tax anywhere on some operations.

A new study has claimed that US multinationals paid tax rates of just 2.2pc in Ireland in 2011. The author of the study, James Stewart, an associate professor of finance in Trinity College, also challenges figures used by the Government to defend Ireland's corporate tax rates.

These very low rates might be described as closer to what would apply in tax havens like Bermuda. The government gets very upset when Ireland is described as a tax haven. There are some similarities but also genuine differences. At the heart of the distinction is the fact that many major US multi-nationals do real things in Ireland.

Ireland can defend the accusation that it is running a brass plate operation for these companies. They employ tens of thousands of people here who are engaging in real business. However, alongside that are aspects of our tax code that allow them to pay a corporation tax rate that is a lot lower than the standard 12.5pc.

It is that dual presence that makes Ireland different – they have a real presence here, while also enjoying a very benign tax structure around things like intellectual property.

The amount of tax they pay in Ireland is very much an issue for us. Are these companies paying enough money through corporation tax to contribute fully to society? We have already answered that question, and so far, the answer appears to be yes. US multinationals are providing enough investment, employment and international credibility, that not even left wing political parties like Sinn Fein are screaming for them to pay a lot more tax.

The amount of tax they are paying worldwide or back to their home country, is a different issue. It can only be rectified by a complex series of international agreements.

But Stewart has made a valuable contribution to the debate. By basing his research on a different and more specific set of figures to those used by government, he is raising a genuine issue that deserves to be aired.

People should know precisely how much tax these companies are paying in Ireland. But the debate has to be counterbalanced with the value of the other contributions they make to Ireland Inc.  There is only one question to be answered in all of this. If they had to pay a little bit more, would they go somewhere else? Nobody really knows the answer to that question. And nobody is prepared to take a chance on the answer. 





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